Since the beginning of early Christian art, angels have been part of the art scene. They have appeared in paintings and have been popular subjects for Byzantine and European paintings and sculptures over centuries.
Especially during the Italian Renaissance, famous angel paintings were created, and the trend continued into the Romantic Period. Even many modern artists still use the themes from time to time. Our perception of what an angel looks like emerged in the 4th Century. But angel-like figures in the arts can be traced back thousands of years.
Beginning of Angel-like Figures in Art
The concept of angels as we know it today originated in the 4th century, but representations of angel-like figures can be found throughout art history. A Lamassu was a protective deity in ancient Assyrian culture.
This figure was also known as a “winged bull” and as a subject of Assyrian art consisted of the head of a human, the body of a lion, and large, feathered wings.
It was the custom to place pairs of sculpted lamassu at the entrances to palaces—the earliest examples of such sculptures date as far back as the 10th century BC.
Angel Figures in Ancient Greece
In Greece, Eros, the son of Aphrodite and the god of love, and Nike were two flight-ready figures. In the Classical Art period (510 – 323BC), artists depicted him as an adolescent with enormous wings. Eros is the equivalent of the Roman Cupid, who is, up to today, always depicted with wings.
From 323 BC to 31 AD during the Hellenistic period, marble sculptures were very popular. Many artists crafted statues of the gods, with the “Winged Victory of Samothrace” among the famous examples.
A carved figure of Nike was created in the second century BC to commemorate a sea battle. This 18-foot sculpture portrays Nike as the Greek goddess of victory with flowing drapery and colossal wings.
Old Angel Paintings since the 3rd Century
In the Catacomb of Priscilla, which was used in the 3rd Century for Christian burials, the earliest artistic interpretation of an angel was found. As part of a collection of wall paintings in the catacomb that illustrates scenes from the Old and New Testaments, frescoes tell the Annunciation story – the biblical event in which the angel Gabriel announced Mary would be the mother of the Son of God. In these frescoes, Gabriel is depicted as an angel without any wings.
The relief carvings on a marble coffin found near Turkey are the first known work of art showing angels with wings. This coffin, known as the Prince’s Sarcophagus, dates back to the 4th Century. The winged angels on the coffin are the first of many winged angels found in Byzantine art. For the next few centuries, paintings of angels with wings would appear from time to time as the subject of panel paintings and other artworks.
Paintings of Angels in the Middle Ages
Medieval artists adopted the Byzantine interpretation of angels with wings. They incorporated them into their gold-ground paintings.
These flying angels can often be seen floating in the background of scenes of seated holy figures. A good example is where the Virgin Mary and Jesus sit in the foreground in Pietro di Domenico da Montepulciano’s painting “Madonna and Child with Angels.”
Winged angels also often appear in medieval illuminated manuscripts. Sometimes they are featured as decorative elements, and at other times they are the stories’ main subjects.
Angel Renaissance Paintings
During the Early Renaissance in Italy, artists often incorporated winged angels in their paintings. But despite the wings, the angels painted in the Early Renaissance began to look less ethereal and more earthly.
This evolution away from the medieval depiction of angels hinted toward the High Renaissance artists’ interest in naturalism. One of the first examples demonstrating this shift is Fra Filippo Lippi’s “Madonna With Child and Two Angels.”
Angels Renaissance paintings were also part of the Northern Renaissance artists like Jan Van Eyck’s. However, they usually replaced the ivory or golden feathers with striking rainbow gradients.
The Depicting of Angels in Contemporary Art
Contemporary artists are continuing the tradition to create angelic works of art. However, their interpretations are more individualistic than in earlier art periods. Every artist creates unique angel figures, and these figures often vary from the traditional idea of an angel. Keith Haring, for instance, created expressive line drawings of angels, and Anselm Kiefer’s neo-expressionist “Angel” series illustrates the differences in depicting angels in art.
Three of the Most Famous Angel Paintings over the Centuries
Although renowned artists have created most famous angel paintings, and some of these artworks have become just as famous as the painters, there are a few paintings that most art lovers and scholars will always see as “unforgettable.”
Raphael’s work, known as “The Sistine Madonna,” is an iconic painting centering around angels and divine figures. Another well-known angel painting is Caravaggio’s “St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy,” where St Francis is being cradled in the arms of a male winged angel.
Rembrandt van Rijn’s painting “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” is one of this biblical story’s “unforgettable” depictions. This work was made in 1659 and has remained one of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings.
Angels in Paintings in the Neoclassicism and Modernism Art Periods
The Neoclassical artists were inspired by the Renaissance’s realism and painted naturalistic angels. The angels in the paintings of the neoclassical artists evoked the down-to-earth quality of the earlier Renaissance paintings.
But where the Renaissance artists always painted the angels in biblical depictions, the Neoclassical angels were not strictly found in biblical descriptions. Angels were also featured in mythological iconography and allegorical scenes. This trend was inspired by Classical artworks like William Bouguereau’s well-known “Birth of Venus.”
Modernists in the 20th Century were also looking to the high heavens for inspiration, and angels were often featured in their art.
Paintings of angels have been produced for centuries, and they are still used as themes for artworks. Although the Renaissance artists actively used this theme in their works, it has continued through all the different art periods.